The Gothenburg Collection – unique textiles from Paracas in Peru

The Paracas Peninsula in present-day Peru has given its name to a civilisation that has produced a unique world heritage. The individuality and imagery of the textiles discovered on the Paracas Peninsula in the 1920's have no historical precedent. Today, 89 of the Paracas textiles are in the possession of Gothenburg City while the National Museums of World Culture are responsible for the care, preservation and availability of the collection.

The Paracas textiles are part of an international knowledge process and exchange
By using radiocarbon dating, also known as C14 dating, the oldest textiles in the collection have been estimated to around 2,500 years old. These textiles were used as shrouds for wrapping the dead who, while seated in a basket, were then wrapped in further layers of textiles and placed in a tomb. Such a funerary bundle could contain up to 40 embroidered textiles alternated in layers of plain cloth. Because the Paracas funerary bundles had been lowered into dry, cold and salty desert sand, protected from factors of deterioration such as oxygen and UV light, the textiles were in a very good condition when excavated around 100 years ago.

Although it has been many years since scientists began charting the Paracas civilisation on the basis of the finds made, little is still known about the lives and society of the Paracas people. However, it has been possible to verify that the Paracas civilisation extended beyond the peninsula where the tombs were found and that it was part of the ancient Andean civilisation that once stretched along the Pacific coast.

In 2001, the National Museum of World Culture took the first initiative to hold an international conference on Paracas related matters with the aim of establishing a long-term collaboration and exchange of knowledge with the world's leading experts. However, several such initiatives are needed in order to raise awareness and secure the physical survival of the collection. A systematic collaboration between experts and cultural heritage institutions allows for the restoration of lost as well as the acquisition of new data and information at the same time as the Paracas textiles continue to enthral with their stunning imageries.

Preservation of 2,000-year-old textiles
Despite being more than 2,000 years old, the colours of the Paracas textiles are still fantastic and well preserved. The natural colours of pure Alpaca yarn range from grey, white and beige to brown and black. The yarn was dyed and as a result of the Alpaca wool fibres absorbing dye better than cotton fibres, most of the coloured segments in the textiles are wool fibres. The textiles were naturally preserved in the salty sands of the Paracas but since its arrival in Gothenburg in the 1930's, the collection has been on display in a number of museum environments. As a result of exposure to UV light, oxygen and variations in humidity and temperature, the Paracas textiles have become brittle and fragile.

In 1932, the first exhibition showing parts of the collection opened at the Museum of Ethnography (formerly the Swedish East India Company building). However, according to notes dating from the very next year, new shelving was required to house all of the collection. The museum was renovated in 1939 as a result of which, the collection was allocated a separate exhibition area. Prior to exhibition presentation, many of the textiles were sewn onto unbleached linen or dyed cotton veils and framed behind glass. Years went by and in 1963, a new way of exhibiting the collection was introduced whereupon the framed textiles were mounted onto vertical pull-out panels. However, the vibrations from the panels caused damage to the textiles and the exhibition has closed to the general public in 1970. To replace the pull-out panels, display stands with showcases of glass mounted on wooden boxes were built in 1978.

In 1992, the entire museum moved to new premises in the district of Gårda in Gothenburg. The Paracas textiles were now exhibited in custom-built display stands, adapted to the size of the objects. In 2001, the entire collection had to move once again, this time to the new premises of the Museum of World Culture. As many of the cotton fibres were found to be very decomposed and in a poor condition, an air suspended lorry was used for transportation. The textiles were in desperate need of a rest from the everyday handling and exposure to UV light.

Following a rest period of seven years, the Paracas textiles were finally brought out for an exhibition in 2008. This time, a risk analysis was carried out to identify the textiles that could be incorporated in the exhibition and those that were too fragile to be moved and hence, had to remain in the museum archives. It was clear that a certain loss of textile fibres during transport was inevitable and this had to be weighed against the importance of making the collection available to a wider audience. The large Paracas textiles selected for the exhibition were then placed horizontally and transported in vibration-free conditions to the Museum of World Cultures where a crane was used to hoist them into the museum through a window.

The Paracas textiles exhibition ran for a period of three years. However, once the textiles were returned to the museum archives, evidence of further fibre loss and damage was found including areas where the base fabric was torn, embroidery threads were hanging loose or there were only fragments of the textile. Despite the extremely careful and horizontal transportation and handling of the textiles between the museum archives and the Museum of World Cultures, a short distance of only a few kilometres, the textiles had nonetheless suffered further decomposition and damage.

A continued discussion about the Paracas textiles and their history will hopefully help to broaden international interest in this unique textile heritage and its future. These ancient textiles place very high demands on the handling, planning and preservation of the textiles as well as the museum environment in which they are kept. In view of this, solutions must be sought to allow for a continued high-quality preservation and museum exhibition of these globally unique Paracas textiles.